RFK Center - Defending Human Rights In This World
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Robert F. Kennedy

Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh child in the closely knit and competitive family of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. "I was the seventh of nine children," he later recalled, "and when you come from that far down you have to struggle to survive."

Early Years

He attended Milton Academy and, after wartime service in the Navy, received his degree in government from Harvard University in 1948. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School three years later. Perhaps more important for his education was the Kennedy family dinner table, where his parents involved their children in discussions of history and current affairs. "I can hardly remember a mealtime," Robert Kennedy said, "when the conversation was not dominated by what Franklin D. Roosevelt was doing or what was happening in the world."

On June 17, 1950, Robert Kennedy married Ethel Skakel of Greenwich, Connecticut, daughter of Ann Brannack Skakel and George Skakel, founder of Great Lakes Carbon Corporation. Robert and Ethel Kennedy later had eleven children. (Kathleen, Joseph, Robert Jr., David, Courtney, Michael, Kerry, Christopher, Max, Doug and Rory.)

In 1952, he made his political debut as manager of his older brother John's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. The following year, he served briefly on the staff of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Kennedy's investigative work confirmed reports that countries allied with the United States against Communist China in the Korean War were also shipping goods to Communist China, but did not imply, as Senator McCarthy often did, that traitors were making American foreign policy.

Disturbed by McCarthy's controversial tactics, Kennedy resigned from the staff after six months. He later returned to the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations as chief counsel for the Democratic minority, in which capacity he wrote a report condemning McCarthy's investigation of alleged Communists in the Army. His later work as chief counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee investigating corruption in trade unions won him national recognition for his investigations of Teamsters Union leaders Jimmy Hoffa and David Beck.

Attorney General

In 1960 he was the tireless and effective manager of John's presidential campaign. After the election, he was appointed Attorney General in President Kennedy's Cabinet. While Attorney General he won respect for his diligent, effective and nonpartisan administration of the Department of Justice.

Attorney General Kennedy launched a successful drive against organized crime - convictions against organized crime figures rose by 800% during his tenure - and became increasingly committed to the rights of African Americans to vote, receive an equal education, and use public accommodations. He demonstrated his commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School: "We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 [Supreme Court school desegregation] decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law."

In September 1962, Robert Kennedy sent U.S. Marshals and troops to Oxford, Mississippi to enforce a Federal court order admitting the first African American student - James Meredith - to the University of Mississippi. The riot that had followed Meredith's registration at "Ole Miss" had left two dead and hundreds injured. Robert Kennedy saw voting as the key to racial justice and collaborated with President Kennedy when he proposed the most far-reaching civil rights statute since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed after President Kennedy was slain on November 22, 1963.

Robert Kennedy was not only President Kennedy's Attorney General, he was also his closest advisor and confidant. As a result of this unique relationship, the Attorney General played a key role in several critical foreign policy decisions. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, he helped develop the Kennedy Administration's strategy to blockade Cuba instead of taking military action that could have led to nuclear war and then negotiated with the Soviet Union on removal of the weapons.

U.S. Senator

Soon after President Kennedy's death, Robert Kennedy resigned as Attorney General and, in 1964, ran successfully for the United States Senate from New York. His opponent, incumbent Republican Senator Kenneth Keating, labeled Kennedy a "carpetbagger" during the closely contested campaign. Kennedy responded to the attacks with humor. "I have [had] really two choices over the period of the last ten months," he said at Columbia University. "I could have stayed in - I could have retired. [Laughter.] And I - my father has done very well and I could have lived off him. [Laughter and applause.] ... I tell you frankly I don't need this title because I [could] be called General, I understand, for the rest of my life. [Laughter and applause.] And I don't need the money and I don't need the office space ... [Laughter.] ... Frank as it is - and maybe it's difficult to believe in the state of New York - I'd like to just be a good United States Senator. I'd like to serve." Kennedy waged an effective statewide campaign and, aided by President Lyndon Johnson's landslide, won the November election by 719,000 votes.

As New York's Senator, he initiated a number of projects in the state, including assistance to underprivileged children and students with disabilities and the establishment of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to improve living conditions and employment opportunities in depressed areas of Brooklyn. Now in its 32nd year, the program remains a model for communities all across the nation.

These programs were part of a larger effort to address the needs of the dispossessed and powerless in America - the poor, the young, racial minorities and Native Americans. He sought to bring the facts about poverty to the conscience of the American people, journeying into urban ghettos, Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and migrant workers' camps. "There are children in the Mississippi Delta," he said, "whose bellies are swollen with hunger ... Many of them cannot go to school because they have no clothes or shoes. These conditions are not confined to rural Mississippi. They exist in dark tenements in Washington, D.C., within sight of the Capitol, in Harlem, in South Side Chicago, in Watts. There are children in each of these areas who have never been to school, never seen a doctor or a dentist. There are children who have never heard conversation in their homes, never read or even seen a book."

He sought to remedy the problems of poverty through legislation to encourage private industry to locate in poverty-stricken areas, thus creating jobs for the unemployed, and stressed the importance of work over welfare.

Robert Kennedy was also committed to the advancement of human rights abroad. He traveled to Eastern Europe, Latin America and South Africa to share his belief that all people have a basic human right to participate in the political decisions that affect their lives and to criticize their government without fear of reprisal. He also believed that those who strike out against injustice show the highest form of courage. "Each time a man stands up for an ideal," he said in a 1966 speech to South African students, "or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Kennedy was also absorbed during his Senate years by a quest to end the war in Vietnam. As a new Senator, Kennedy had originally supported the Johnson Administration's policies in Vietnam, but called for a greater commitment to a negotiated settlement and a renewed emphasis on economic and political advancement within South Vietnam. As the war continued to widen and America's involvement deepened, Senator Kennedy came to have serious misgivings about President Johnson's conduct of the war. Kennedy publicly broke with the Johnson Administration for the first time in February 1966, proposing participation by all sides (including the Vietcong's political arm, the National Liberation Front) in the political life of South Vietnam. The following year, he took responsibility for his role in the Kennedy Administration's policy in the Southeast Asia, and urged President Johnson to cease the bombing of North Vietnam and reduce, rather than enlarge, the war effort. In his final Senate speech on Vietnam, Kennedy said, "Are we like the God of the Old Testament that we can decide, in Washington, D.C., what cities, what towns, what hamlets in Vietnam are going to be destroyed? ... Do we have to accept that? ... I do not think we have to. I think we can do something about it."

Presidential Campaign

On March 16, 1968, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "an uproarious campaign, filled with enthusiasm and fun ... It was also a campaign moving in its sweep and passion." Indeed, he challenged the complacent in American society and sought to bridge the great divides in American life - between the races, between the poor and the more affluent, between young and old, between order and dissent. His 1968 campaign brought hope and challenge to an American people troubled by discontent and violence at home and war in Vietnam. He won critical primaries in Indiana and Nebraska and spoke to enthusiastic crowds across the nation.

Robert Francis Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California shortly after claiming victory in that state's crucial Democratic primary. He died in the early hours of June 6, 1968 at the age of 42 years old. Although his life was cut short, Robert Kennedy's vision and ideals live on today through the work of his family, friends and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial in Washington, D.C.

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“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Robert F. Kennedy
Capetown, June 6th 1966